One theme that has been woven through my life over the years is something that I call between-ness. I am right now in more than one sense in between, as a Japanese woman living in America, between West and East. But it is not simply this observable geographical fact, rather it is a psychological tendency.
Japanese culture has some openness to embrace various religions, so this played into my experience as a child. I remember going to a temple with my grandma one day and right after that I participated in a service at protestant church with my mother. While I was more with Buddhism, I thought I was rather Christian, and vice versa. This tendency to move fluidly between worldviews and philosophies continued into my academic life as well. I learned one discipline after another. No matter how much I am steeped in one tradition, I was always somehow an outsider. At the same time when a discipline disagreed with one tradition, I found myself taking the position of devil’s advocate, defending a view to bring balance. It is often for me a question of how can I be in a between place in peace, without feeling conflicted or needing to identify myself with a specific view or idea.
Japanese people are notorious for their ambiguity. Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself was the title of the speech that Japanese contemporary writer Kenzaburo Oe gave at the 1994 Nobel Prize award ceremony. This ambiguity he noted is something that often brings a challenge in the interaction between Japanese and Western people. Japanese people say yes when they may actually mean no, or when Westerners want a clear answer Japanese people may give silence, or an ambiguous answer saying, “I don’t know” with a smile. This ambiguity appears as a mystery if one does not understand the deeper meaning behind Japanese culture. There is friction and misunderstanding in a global age with pressure on the Japanese to conform to the dominant Western way of being.
There might be a couple of things behind this ambiguity. It can be due to a Japanese cultural emphasis on importance of the group as opposed to the individual. The notion of Wa or group harmony is reinforced from a young age as Japanese people learn to identify with other’s feelings, and this sympathy makes it difficult at times for them to differentiate their own needs and feelings from others. For the sake of group harmony they strive to not to upset others. Disagreement and turning down other’s ideas are seen as a way of destroying the vital social harmony. This unique cultural attribute brings about a nation who is seen as one that cannot say no.
Japanese ambiguity comes in various forms. Japanese people use ambiguity, of not stating either yes or no to show their feelings about someone’s suggestion, opinion or invitation. This ambiguity can be seen as a gray area, of not seeing things as either black or white. At times it is hard for Japanese people to leave the space of between where there is not a clear line between two seemingly opposing ideas and views and claim only one perspective.
When there is a dimension in social life that requires clarity, Western minds tend to grasp quickly and articulate it. This clear articulation is something that Japanese can strive to attain. At the same time there is a domain of ambiguity where things exist as rather undefined, which embraces contradiction and multiple ideas or views. Things are not always simply black and white and indeed are gray or even multi-colored. The mind that sees ambiguity feels into the subtlety of things, into multiple layers with rich colors and shapes of events. This is the place of in-betweenness. It is not black or white, but both black and white, where two colors merge and lose distinction. This place of ambiguity provides a possibility to see things in many forms, without being tied to one certain thing.
Living in Western society I sometimes encounter situations where I am asked to take sides, to choose one specific idea or concept in a way that demotes other possibilities or views. I often felt there is something missing in this mindset; an openness to new potential for dialogue. In the name of bringing chaos to order, this place of between-ness is bypassed to quickly produce fast food knowledge, hailing the supremacy of sharpened reason. As a result something living can be easily captured like pinned butterflies in a collection.
Dwelling in a comforting sea of ambiguity can be turned into bits and pieces of fact and these are often used to create a body of empty ideology that is abstracted from its foundation. While studying in Europe the great modern Japanese writer Soseki Natsume warned the Japanese people against blindly following the path of Westernization:
Japan can’t get along without borrowing from the West. But it poses as a first-class power. And, it’s straining to join the ranks of the first class powers. That’s why, in every direction, it puts up the façade of a first-class power and cheats on what’s behind. (as cited in Smith, 1997, p. 159)
His words are still relevant since Japan has moved economically and culturally onto the global stage. Western-led globalization pulls other cultures into their direction. As a result, there occurs a schism between what is foreign to many of us and our own cultural identity. My life has been followed by the theme of between-ness.
As this sense of ambiguity is hindered, a part of my self has been quietly denied. What is left behind in the dim light becomes a perplexing dark shadow that followed me as I moved into the West. It haunts me in the shadow of Western enlightenment, attempting to convince that science has unveiled virtually all the mystery of the world.
How can I find peace in between-ness and reconcile that with clarity of thought? Ultimately it is a question of how I can be peace with my ambiguous self that is neither Asian nor Western and is at the same time both. This question challenges me to be at ease with something that is not quite understood, and simply embrace a way of being that is close to my heart.
In this ambiguity, there opens a new world that may be at the root or foundation of my own culture. It is silence meditated with Zen monks, children’s laughter lost in their timeless play or the conversing with nature, where trees and rain speak through the words of onomatopoeia. It is the landscape seen through the eyes of poets, before moving scenery are gracefully translated into Haiku. It is the moment an archer pulls her arrow, she is overcome with something greater than herself that reaches the target before she releases the arrow.
I was born and grew up in Japan. I inherited the richness of Japanese culture. Ways of knowing that were passed through my ancestors live on in me. Yet each culture and every individual face challenges as they move into the global milieu. Japanese culture is not an exception. Japanese people have been learning to adjust themselves to Western ways of relating. Though this has its merits, I feel it is time for us to proudly claim our own way of knowing. The path for one culture into the global age is not simply to follow an impulse given from outside. Instead, one must follow what emerges deep inside as a feeling of familiarity, something familiar, yet forgotten, like rising out of a deep dream sleep.
I feel we need to start making effort to articulate the virtues of ambiguity with confidence. I believe when I find a way to be at peace with my own ambiguity, I can move the world one step closer to peace where there are no conflicts among nations, religions and ideology.
In between is a place of ambiguity. We are perhaps supposed to remain ambiguous, undefined, always in a state of becoming because the world is full of mystery and wonder.
Smith, P.L. (1997). Japan: A reinterpretation. New York: Vintage Books.